The Great beauty revolves around the life of Jep Gamberdella (Toni Servillo), writer of his only novel and daily columnist. But instead of introducing us to him right away, film-maker Paulo Sorrentino first acquaints us with the world he lives in. He takes us through Jep’s 65th birthday party, infested with people who seem to have made conscious effort to distinguish themselves from one another, at face value. We learn later on that they back up their unique senses of identity by working hard to acquire cultured tastes and artistic sensibilities.
Then we meet our protagonist, Jep Gamberdella. Sorrentino slowly closes in on him, showing him as a man who doesn’t feel part of the happenings despite being involved. Jep talks to us, revealing that he’s proud to have made it into the highlife. He goes on to confess, “I didn’t just want to live the highlife. I wanted to be the king of the highlife. I didn’t want to just go to parties; I wanted to have the power to make them a failure.”
So, that’s Jep in a nutshell; an isolated, uninspired, cynical misanthrope of a man who’s fully content with his life for what it’s worth. But Sorrentino steers Jep through circumstances that trigger introspective thought, exposing him to the fruitless nature of his shallow existence. From the whirlpool of the highlife, Jep is slowly sucked into an abyss of emptiness. Sorrentino seems to have inadvertently mapped out Jep’s journey into (and out of) this abyss. It’s truly a journey to marvel at. That I could strongly identify with the protagonist only made the film more affable and easy to absorb. I found myself heavily invested in the film’s events and was left contemplating about the themes explored here. Nostalgia, cynicism, relativism and escapism are some other themes that lurk beneath the satirical surface of the film.
The Great Beauty also features an array of eccentric characters- a fleecing cosmetologist who fears the taxman, a nun who lusts after a socially awkward tribesman, an exorcist who can’t stop talking about his culinary secrets (he exorcises Jep of his lack of faith for questioning the priest’s credibility), a poet who doesn’t talk (because he always listens) and a head nun who profoundly delivers the banal (Jep finally finds inspiration in a non-existent subtext encrypted in her words). There was another visual that seemed to say nothing, but was placed incongruously with the film. It cracked me up.
In the life of a cynic and a misanthrope, Paulo Sorrentino finds a story worth telling. He finds beauty in cynicism as he unravels hidden fragilities in Jep while raising philosophical questions about reality, existence, mortality and the futility of it all.
Initially Jep is content with his life. He derives pleasure and purpose from destroying the credibility of an outlandish artist who takes herself and her work too seriously, or so he believes. He is alone though, in his criticism, of her performance. Her fan following seems to come from hipsters who believe they get art because they can appreciate the abstract, even if they can’t put this appreciation into words. He won’t let her get away with it and makes her pay in his interview with her. “Unpolishable fluff,” he deems her ‘sensory vibrations.’
The next morning, Jep looks over from his terrace into the neighbouring convent and chances upon a nun playing with two little kids. He can’t remember the last time he’s ever felt as excited or enthusiastic about something. All of a sudden, he feels old. This thought is the start of a chain reaction that removes the silver lining from his worldview. He no longer sees himself or his people of much value. I thought this was a brilliant way to begin the character’s arc.
A moment of epiphany follows after he makes love dispassionately to an ex-girlfriend. He leaves abruptly, narrating, “The first thing I realized when I turned 65 was that I had no more time to waste doing things I don’t want to do.”
We’re next shown the woman’s husband greeting Jep at his doorstep (he doesn’t recognize him) informing him that the woman’s dead. Later, we see the two men in the church get emotional and there’s a quick visual inserted here, of two nuns staring disapprovingly at him as they walk away. This is Jep projecting the knowledge of his own guilt onto them. It’s a quick, sharp visual that emphasizes on how he feels about what he’s done. However, we’re never let in on how this woman expired. I find this interesting because there are multiple deaths that follow after this one and we know the nature of them all. This omission seems intentional, revealing that Jep never cared to ask. This is consistent with his cynical and misanthropic characteristics.
The manner with which he receives and responds to this death is vastly different from the ones that follow. The deaths and departures of people in his life seem to serve as milestones in the development of his character, as he slowly finds beauty once again in the world he lives in.
A key scene sequence in Jep’s journey opens with a mother searching for her lost child in a ‘temple’. The irresponsible nature of this lady seems to reinforce the disappointing world Jep lives in, infested with infantile characters. Jep happens to find her hiding spot. He looks down at her. She asks, “Who are you?” Before he can answer her fittingly, she interrupts him, “No, you’re nobody.” Jep is at a loss of words. He is hit with the futility and unfulfilled nature of his existence. The music is momentous capturing wonderfully the humbling nature of Jep’s epiphany. This moment of clarity seems to have put in him a new drive to make something of his life.
Jep finds no value in anything with an emotional ring to it. He sees moments of inspiration and beauty that temporarily drown out his cynicism, but people and circumstances find ways to rub him unfavourably and all his negativity comes back to the surface. His misanthropy too doesn’t appear to be a choice. People around seem to put up fronts, embody false identities while fully believing these untruths. He can’t stand it and believes these fronts significantly contradict who they 'really are.' Jep seems burdened with an eye for the inauthentic. He seems to involuntarily look beyond things, and people, and finds himself face to face the ugly core existing deep within. “I couldn’t find the great beauty” he says, when asked why he never wrote another book.
As time progresses, he begins to feel more alien to everything and everyone around him. Circumstances continue to reinforce his cynicism. Gossip, small talk and the like exist in abundance but they fail to entice him. Jep feels stuck in a shallow, meaningless world with nothing to behold or marvel at. All Jep seems free to do is waste away in luxury. He copes by taking walks down memory lane, particularly those that are nearly half a century away. “Nostalgia is the only distraction left for those who have no hope in the future,” Sorrentino voices, through another character.
The best piece of monologue I’ve heard in a long while is Jep Gamberdella destroying a boastful delusional lady who condescends towards everyone around her. He crushes her with his monologue bringing to the fore all the insecurities that she effectively shields herself from. Paulo Sorrentino seems to have taken a page from his own book here; because this feels personally aimed at someone he knows, or knew. It’s a tense moment in the film. But it opens her eyes to issues that have been left in the vault for too long. I like how we see her after this standing by the pool waiting to confront her husband, but he just continues swimming. Sorrentino overtly exposes to both, her and us, the true nature of their relationship.
Jep meets with an old friend he hasn’t seen in decades. The man is happy and welcoming until Jep disapproves of the name he’s bestowed upon his daughter. “Ramona,” he reminds the man, “means ambition.” It triggers his lacking sense of fulfilment and makes him feel more jaded than he already does. A nice little character detail brought out here in a rather naturalistic conversation. Sorrentino has put in a lot of work here.
Jep unconsciously plays father figure to Ramona, “You should be looking for a husband. Family’s a beautiful thing.” She replies “I know. I’m just not cut out for beautiful things.” A silence follows after, letting the lifeless music throbbing in the back to take over. He connects with her, reminded once again of his own cynicism and emptiness. This is a tragic moment that struck a chord with me. I deeply felt the vacuum Jep feels weighed down by.
One of the most bizarre scene sequences in the film involves Jep at the cosmetologist’s office. It has an ominous feel to it, as we sit and wait for the frontman to appear. The ruses he deploys to ensure that his clients come back to him is downright repugnant and an ideal showcase of dirty opportunism. Sorrentino seems to also reference the self-serious manner with which people take their outwardly appearances. All of this only further triggers Jep’s cynicism and misanthropy. And when his turn comes, we see him lost in thought. We’re not shown what happens next because Sorrentino trusts in his audience to fill in the blank. I'm of the opinion that Jep declined.
Jep greatly envies those who find beauty in simplicity. He meets once again with an old acquaintance and cannot help but feel envy for the man’s ability to revel in simplicity. This characteristic is reinforced again when he visits a photographer who finds joy and purpose in photographing himself everyday from the age of 14. We see the slide showing a steady incline in his growth; it almost tells a story, showcasing an innocence and spirit that never died. Jep can’t help but feel fragile and sad for having lost a fire that this man still has.
Jep decides to be friendly, tries to fake it until he believes it himself. He flashes a warm smile at a stranger who crosses his path and later waves at his neighbour. But the man doesn’t wave back. Cut to a woman holding a mirror walking towards the camera. This is one of the embedded metaphors that exist in the film. Jep sees a lot of himself in this irascible man and attempts to project (and distance himself) from this facet of his personality by pretending to be friendly. The man doesn’t wave back. We discover later that the guy’s an anti-intellectual...and the most wanted man in the country.
There’s an intentionally abrupt cut from his conversation with the chatty maid to him lying down in bed staring into space. It is so quick and abrupt, making the transition even before she’s finished saying what she’s saying. This is a subtle way to emphasize on how little he has in common with her, making comic relief of his ability to relate to those around him.
The best shot in the film has a human train outside in the background with Jep in the foreground, absolutely isolated and filled with contempt for the wildlife around him. He even remarks, about it being best train in Rome because it heads nowhere. He goes on to laugh, amused at his own entrapment in this ennui with imbeciles.
Ramona’s naked vulnerability is subtly hinted at here by her placement in this frame.
Jep seeks advice, in vain, from a priest who gets distracted by pretty women he seeks to court with his culinary wisdom. Whatever little faith Jep might have in his world continues to slip away from his fingers. People continue to prove to be of little worth. After a point, Jep finds it difficult to shield his disdain for the self-indulgent any longer. He tactfully questions the priest’s credibility, thereby offending him. The priest, also a renowned exorcist, retaliates later that evening by exorcising him. It’s damned funny.
Jep’s rehearsal for a funeral is diabolically funny. But when the time comes for him to perform, he acts out of character and breaks down in the most vulnerable moment in the film. The death ceremony is that of an eccentric boy, Andrea, who takes what he reads so seriously that he chooses to live by the book. Earlier in the film, Andrea’s mother asks Jep to talk to her son, help him sort things out. But Jep takes her lightly, casually trivializing her concern. Andrea eventually takes his life, in the hopes of escaping an imagined catastrophe. The priest requests that Andrea’s friends carry the coffin. No one comes forward. Jep and his bunch volunteer to take their places. Jep feels a profound sense of guilt, acknowledging the futility of his effort here and contrasts it with shirking help when it was requested earlier, at a time of distress. Jep weeps uncontrollably. It’s a beautiful moment in the film showcasing a deep-seated fragility that remained hidden all along.
Sorrentino repeatedly teases the viewer, toying with our expectations, misdirecting us repeatedly and then subverting these expectations. It’s almost as if he’s looking for ways to troll the audience and then assert his victory. A naked lady walks to the edge of a wall about to jump off. This happens right after Jep destroys her credibility in the social circle and diminishes her exaggerated self-worth. We think she’s going to end her life. Instead, she jumps into a pool and swims vigorously trying to clear her mind. She appears once again toward the end of the film slow-dancing with Jep. He says “Thank goodness we still have something nice to do together. The future is marvellous.” The camera pans out slowly capturing the love in the air letting you think that Jep is finally at peace with himself, but the film sincerely cuts to his neighbour arrested. Sorrentino smugly laughs at our own optimistic make-believe and our desires to be uplifted while revelling in his Jep’s cynicism all by himself. It’s wickedly funny. And lastly, this other scene involving the terminally ill Ramona lying down with her limp arm outstretched. Sorrentino zooms in dramatically as if implying her death. She blinks. Another “Gotcha!” moment.
There’s another telling scene sequence that takes place in a church that points to the subservient, herd mentality of common folk. We see nuns, tribes, priests, all gathered for an event that resembles a baptism ceremony. A head nun sits on the throne swinging her legs while onlookers wait their turn to kiss her hand. One priest boasts “Tomorrow, I’ll have the honour of dining with her.” Moments later, the head nun’s shoe falls off accidentally. Everyone gasps, as if it were something momentous. Nevertheless, when the ceremony’s over, everyone’s enthusiastically taking pictures of themselves with the head nun. Her shoe’s long forgotten. Jep, a skeptic, feels surrounded by sheep and loathes their inability to use their individual tools of thought.
“It’s just a trick.”
Jep’s seems to have finally learnt the art of deceiving himself. Is this what artists do after all? Distort the bleak realities of the world just to be able to find inspiration in seeing a beauty that doesn’t really exist? And how do art consumers fit in here? They recognize a beauty in the artist’s work that was never intended?
I can’t help second-guessing my appreciation for a film that accuses the viewer of being easily deceived by its creator. That the film dismisses aesthetics, humanity and beauty while embodying all of these very qualities further blurs my perception of the film. And this puts a satirical spin on the film’s title.